Every life has a story but does every life need to be documented?
Whether we are readers or writers, as ordinary human beings we all feel a great urge to be seen, to be heard, to be acknowledged. So we tell stories – of our childhood, of our families, and our feelings. But before we speak, we listen to stories.
They may come to us first through the words of parents and then through books that tell about heroes and legends, transport us on magic carpets to faraway lands and show us worlds beyond our imaginations. And in every book, we look for something we can recognise – a part of ourselves, a reflection of our values, or an episode that we have experienced.
No matter how far we go on the trail laid out for us by skilled authors, we are looking for a path back towards ourselves, towards understanding the most vexing person we have ever encountered – our own self.
Fiction lights up the truth underlying our life through the lens of imagination, while memoir uncovers it through the lens of understanding.
What is a memoir?
Like a novel, writing a memoir involves telling a story. Except that instead of a fictional character, the protagonist is you, the writer.
Wait – isn’t that an autobiography? NO.
An autobiography is
- The full story of a person’s life, usually told in chronological order and
- Usually about a person who is famous
A memoir, on the other hand, is
- A narrative that covers a particular time of life (eg. childhood), area (eg. parenting) or expertise (eg. cooking) or achievement (climbing Mount Everest) or experience (surviving a trauma etc) and
- The writer is not necessarily famous
In some ways, all autobiographies are memoirs but not all memoirs are autobiographies.
Confused? That’s not surprising.
Quite often and more so recently, we find a lot of memoirs (particularly in India) being written by celebrities. A recent example is Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ Unfinished. While she continues to be a star, there is curiosity about her backstory before she became famous. Due to her status as a public figure, her book, although termed as a memoir, may feel more like an autobiography. The same is the case with Becoming, by Michelle Obama.
What is the difference between a fictional story and a memoir?
Most memoirs read like a story. But there are some similarities and some key differences when compared to fiction:
|Narrative arc||Stories have a beginning, a middle and ‘the end’ unless it’s a series.||Memoirs have a beginning, a middle and ‘an end’.|
|Scope||The author uses imagination to choose where to begin, what to focus on and where to end.||The author uses actual life events/experiences to choose where to begin, what to focus on and where to end.|
|Characters||Usually a composite created by author from real life inspiration||Real people (living or dead), as seen/described by author|
|Protagonist||Does not exist in real life||Author is the main character|
|Story||Advances through action and external events||Advances through action, external events and internal dialog.|
|Focus||Impact of external events/people on movement of narrative||Impact of external events/people on protagonists internal development|
|Priority||Show, DON’T tell||Show AND tell|
|Editing||Can be modified through editorial feedback to add characters, action etc||Limited to what happened in real life, cannot make up stuff|
|Is it real? Or is it true?||Can feel true even though it did not really happen||Actually happened to author and feels true to readers|
|% of fiction||100% (raw material may be derived from real life)||Hard to gauge – reconstructed through memory and introspection|
Why write a memoir?
Memoirs are classified as creative non-fiction because it is a reconstruction of a story that actually happened through memory and through use of fictional elements.
Unlike a composite character sketched from the author’s imagination, the memoir protagonist IS the author. Perhaps a younger version, or a more confused (or determined) one, but much like a fictional hero/heroine, the protagonist is a work in progress, someone who undergoes a change during the timeframe of the story. Whether or not the story follows the hero’s journey arc, there is something to be learnt from the narrative.
The one thing that memoirs seek to do is to make readers feel less alone.
Sharing a personal story is scary because there is no veil of fiction to hide behind. Yet, as famous authors have said – every story written is autobiographical. This is because our perception of life itself is subjective and therefore the lens through which we see and document it is colored by our experiences, biases, and preferences.
My book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After – A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery deals with a three-year period of my life when I walked away from a long marriage and figured out my life as a single parent before going through with the divorce. It was a very confusing time of my life and I was not prepared for what lay ahead. I wanted to write about the doubts, difficulties, and decisions that I had to make on several fronts to build a safe life for my child and me.
I wrote my book for three reasons:
- To stop hiding my pain
- To get closure
- To show others who may find themselves at the same crossroads that a happier life is possible.
This brings me back to the original reason why memoirs of ordinary people are valuable although they do not have as much clout as famous individuals in our celebrity-obsessed culture.
Each one of us defines success differently. For an ordinary person, it may mean rising above the obstacles of their everyday existence to create a joyful life that is filled with purpose and meaning and may not have any ambitions for fame and fortune. That is what I intend to keep in mind as my book is being launched.
My definition of success is different. My goal is to open conversations about the uncomfortable topic of divorce in Indian culture. If my book succeeds in doing this, I will consider it a success.
Wish me luck 🙂
Dr. Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. She is the author of Rewriting My Happily Ever After – A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery that is now available for preorder. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram